The City of Photographers

By - 19 September, 2012

The City of Photographers (La Ciudad de los Fotógrafos, 2006), produced by Las Peliculas del Pez (with support of the Chilean government) and directed by Sebastian Moreno, is a photographic indictment of the Pinochet dictatorship brilliantly captured by the photography and camera work of David Bravo and Sebastian Moreno.

Sebastian Moreno, whose father spent 30 years as a photographer at the Universidad de Chile, recounts the role played by a brave band of photojournalists who sometimes risked everything to capture the true nature of the Pinochet dictatorship. The film opens with the backbeat of tyranny – the sound of gunfire, sirens, helicopters, explosions and the cries of protestors. Chile may have been going into dictatorship but it didn’t do so quietly.

The format is classic documentary – talking heads interspersed with montage, stills and newsreel footage. The photographers’ work – starting with the coup in 1973 – captures in the flick of a shutter the true character of state-sponsored terror.

The castle in hell

The narrative starts in earnest with Luis Navarro’s picture of a disused lime kiln in Lonquén, Isla de Maipo, where 15 agricultural labourers were buried alive in 1973 at the start of the coup. Sebastian Moreno said when he first saw the image as a child it appeared to him like a castle. The bodies of these first desaparecidos (disappeared), which were discovered in 1979, included five sons from the same family.

As Luis Navarro puts it, his imagery and that of his fellows in the AFI (Independent Photographers Guild Association) was often the only testament to “the lost and the dead”. Contributions from Jorge Ianiszewski, Claudio Perez, Paz Errázuriz, Inés Paulino, Percy Lams, Kenia Lorenzini, Alvaro Hoppe, Marcelo Montecinos, Claudio Castro, Oscar Navarro and Pepe Durán provide graphic accounts of the role played by photojournalists in undermining the Pinochet regime between 1973-1990.

Doublespeak in the service of sadism

General Pinochet thought to inform his citizens: “Every dweller of this land ought to ponder how meaningful it is to live in a country where peace reigns.” Meanwhile, back at the mineshaft, lime kiln, stadia or on the street, it was brutality as usual played out in full view of the cameras. Sometimes desperately short of film and reliant on agencies like France Presse and Reuters for handouts, Chile’s photographers still managed to produce a body of work which brought the reality of the regime to the outside world. Indeed, very often these same agencies bought work from the street photographers.

The currency of opposition

The eloquence of this photographic record is exemplified in the comments of protestor Ana González. In a largely voiceless and impoverished world, the importance of photographs took on a powerfully humanitarian but seditious role. González notes that her family had one photograph. She recalled that on the day it was taken they had nothing to eat. She goes on: “If you don’t have a picture of your family it’s like not having played a part in the history of humanity.” These scant remnants of reified humanity – in the form of portraits or excerpts from life – became icons and emblems of protest and resistance hanging from the necks or pinned to the coats of the mothers of los desaparecidos or emblazoned on posters which read: “¿Donde Estan?/Where are they?”

Some of the photographers, among them Claudio Castro, have made it their business to put pictures to names. In 1976 there were just 700 images to go with the 1,197 names of the then desaparecidos. Today, memorials exist in Santiago de Chile, tiled with the images of people who were once just statistics.

The street photographers led a precarious existence. Aside from instant justice and incarceration, the state also used stooges to photograph them. Oscar Navarro, nicknamed Kamikaze because of his desire to get into the action, was one of many photographers beaten up by the security services. Claudio Castro notes that you could usually tell them apart because of the “absence of light in their eyes”, their standoffishness, the tell-tale clipped moustaches and their tendency to stay on the periphery of the action.

Whilst some of the images reflect the grim reality of a state in which extra-judicial murder was the norm, events started to undermine any presumption of legitimacy. The assassination of French priest, André Jarlan, in 1984, led to a huge funeral march in protest.

By the time of John Paul II’s state visit in 1987, protestors scrawled “Santo Padre, llevatelo” (“Holy Father, take him [Pinochet] away”) on a sign which advertised the pontiff as Arbitro de la Paz/Aribiter of Peace.

Censoring Mrs Pinochet

Claudio Pérez mentions that at one point the Pinochet government decided on full photographic censorship and magazines appeared with captions but no pictures. This occasionally had a comic twist as Pérez notes when reading “Mrs Lucia Pinochet in a lovely blue gown and feathered hat attends something or other…” It was censorship so severe it even censored its own mediocrity.

There were also other ironic juxtapositions, such as Cardinal Fresno of Santiago, standing in an open car in motorcade passing a cinema which was showing The Killing Fields (Los Gritos de Silencio). Irony is always lost on tyranny.

To counteract the direct censorship, the photographers paraded through the streets wearing their work as posters and placards.

Death and death throes

As time went on some of the photographers realised that a dispassionate relationship with events only goes so far. Some retired because of feelings of voyeurism and others took a step back as the worst excesses of the regime started to ease.

Oscar Navarro mentions that some realised they had become adrenaline junkies. Others became victims, not just of denuncios like Luis Navarro, but of hideous brutality. Marcelo Montecinos recounts the story of Rodrigo Rojas, a 19-year-old photographer, who whilst covering the funeral of murdered student Donald Wood, was burned alive when the security forces dosed him with petrol and set him alight.

Arbitrary and extreme brutality was readily used by state security to cow the population, journalists and other opponents alike. In another gruesome case, José Manuel Parada a university lecturer was among three academics whose bodies were found dumped with signs of torture and their throats slit on a roadside verge near Santiago airport.

Divide and Rule

The Luis Navarro case also illustrates the sadism of the Pinochet regime. After attempting to take a picture of General Pinochet outside the Moneda Palace, he was held for five days. He was told: “Now we are going to collect for all you have done. Your cameras damaged us more than a gun. So if we blame you for Holy Mary… all the rest are going to believe it.” Some did. He was wrongly considered to be a traitor and collaborator for years.

The camera work and photography compliment a compelling narrative which at times is raw in its pain and sense of loss.

The City of Photographers (La Cuidad de los Fotografos) is part of Resistencia: Focus on Latin America, a journey across Latin America today in documentary and discussion being held on Saturday, 22nd September 2012 at Rich Mix Cinema. For further details, contact the Rich Mix Box Office on 020 7613 7498, richmix.org.uk or dochouse.org

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